As we worked the fields at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park, I had a flashback of days gone by.
I was teleported to the 1970s, when pheasants were plentiful in Niagara County and Western New York. It seemed like an out-of-body experience as I carried a Remington 20 gauge behind a pair of working dogs, German shorthaired pointers named Blitz and Greta. The autumn foliage was near its peak, providing a backdrop of vivid colors that helped set the stage for this déjà vu experience.
Back then, I used a Remington Model 18 handed down from my grandfather, Irvin Hilts. That firearm soon will be passed on to my daughter Natalie, the subject of another story in a few weeks.
As I came back to reality, I heard Joel Spring of Ransomville shout, “Max is on a bird.” Max, a 7-year-old golden retriever, was working a goldenrod field back and forth following his nose as we eagerly awaited a possible flush. It was my first time out this year, with the pheasant season opening last Saturday. Working the same general area was Fred, a one-year-old English Springer Spaniel who is showing a lot of promise.
Without warning, two colorful roosters exploded from the brush in front of us, one to the right where Spring was standing and one to the left in front of me. Spring was the first to connect, using his side-by-side double to down the colorful bird in one shot. I was next with the Remington. We scored on a double-header and Max was quick to retrieve both, proud as a peacock.
The cameras came out and a quick photo session was held to capture the moment. With the obsessive number of photos that Spring takes, these dogs can’t be camera-shy. This was “only the beginning,” and I hummed a little bit of the popular Chicago song as I hoped it would be an omen for our morning hunt.
I flashed back five decades again to when I walked beside my dad, Bill Sr., and Hans Treutel of Sanborn, behind his Blitz and Greta. We were walking our 30 acres behind the house in which we grew up in Cambria. The shrill of the whistle commanded their attention and the dogs obeyed the commands immediately. As we neared the pond and the end of the field, two roosters took flight in front of us. One was in front of me and my aim was true for my first bird ever. I was hooked. Dad connected on the second bird and we had a double.
As I grew older, I would slip behind the house on occasion just to take a pheasant or two for dinner. However, that was the tail end of the heyday of native pheasant populations in the Niagara Frontier. The combination of pesticides, loss of habitat, a change in agricultural practices and an increase in predators contributed to the decline of a very special time in our history. It will never be the same.
Back to reality, as Max was on another bird.
“Keep an eye on him,” yelled Spring as we tried to move into position near a small block of trees. It provided limited cover as the dogs pushed the birds beyond the grasses. Two birds went up, but one escaped untouched, using the trees as a barrier. I took a quick shot and the other bird came crashing down to a waiting Max, as he was both efficient and quick in the retrieving process. More photos followed.
I thought about my mother, how she cooked my pheasants for an evening dinner and I enjoyed my first meal of upland birds as a teenager. I realized then that it was part of the hunting experience, just like a finely cooked venison steak is with deer hunting.
As we started to work our way back to the vehicle, Max was on another bird.
“I’ve got my two birds,” I told Spring. “Next one is yours.”
As if on cue, Max flushed another beautiful rooster in front of me, but the bird turned toward a waiting Spring.
“Take him,” I shouted. I didn’t have to tell him twice.
The bark of his shotgun echoed off the trees as Max made a beeline for the tumbling pheasant. It was a few minutes after 9 a.m. and we were finished for the day with our limit of ringnecks. Life is good. Of course, the real photo session took place then, with two photographers having a click-fest to signify the end of the hunt. Finally, it was time to clean the birds.
To help keep the bygone era alive, some 30,000 pheasants are stocked annually in the Empire State through the Richard E. Reynolds Game Farm in Ithaca. They are stocked on public land across the state, as well as on private land, where a simple request for permission is required. Birds are stocked throughout the season, too.
Another 40,000 birds are part of the Day-Old Pheasant Chick Program, including some 30 cooperative extension agencies through 4-H. Those birds also are released.
Some sportsmen’s clubs offer pheasant programs and raise their own birds or purchase them from private game farms. Two such clubs include the Three-F Club in Lewiston and the Tonawandas Sportsmen’s Club in Pendleton.
Private shooting preserves are available, allowing individuals or groups to purchase bird packages to work their dogs or hire a guide and a dog to assist with your hunt. Here are some shooting preserves in Western New York:
Cambria Game Farms, 4460 Upper Mountain Road, Lockport, 628-2174.
Pheasants on the Flats, 9322 Cone Dorman Road, Batavia, 585-770-4971.
Pheasant Ridge, 6781 Ridge Road, Lockport, 438-0182.
Ringnecks on Broadway, 2407 Broadway, Darien Center, 585-993-0950.
Tails and Feathers Bird Hunting Preserve, 6477 Hatter Road, Newfane, 471-1524 or 998-4986.
There are plenty of birds around if you know where to look and how to find them. Bird hunting is an excellent gateway activity for junior hunters to get started. It’s also an activity you can enjoy with family and friends.
The northern part of Western New York is open to pheasant hunting until Dec. 31. The Southern Tier is open through Feb. 28, 2019. Give it a try.